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Women at Work: The Upside

A new generation of women leaders see progress trumping problems

With the volume of media attention directed at the “plight of the working woman” (see:  Lean In , Queen Bees, equal pay for equal work), and all the advice on how to persevere despite the immense challenges, the assumption might be that the lives of female executives is unbalanced and unfair and unrewarding. Recently, Debora L. Spar, the president of Barnard College, reignited the conversation with her book  Wonder Women , about career women’s quest for perfection and accepting the reality that such perfection may not be attainable, echoing yet another book released earlier this year called  The Orange Line , by Suffolk University professor Jodi Detjen. But is what’s lacking in women’s working lives the whole story? Is the state of professional affairs as bad as it seems?

Is it ever? In fact, new studies—and a closer look at older ones—show that women are much happier, and more confident, about their careers than the tone of the discussion would indicate. What’s more, while the media, many women’s organizations, and books like Sandberg’s and Spar’s focus on what is wrong with the lives of women executives (“When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail”), a new generation of female leaders are focusing on what is right.

2001 report  by McKinsey Research showed the steady decline in the percentage of female leaders from hiring through middle and senior management: Though women are claiming 53 percent of entry-level management jobs, after that, the numbers drop: to 37 percent for mid-managers, and even lower, to 26 percent, for vice presidents and up. These shrinking numbers could mean that the glass ceiling remains thick and low, and that women are leaving out of frustration with lack of opportunity or advancement—generally, what’s been interpreted. Or you could look at it as women making personal choices, choosing family over work or leaving corporate jobs for the independence of starting their own businesses. The  Global Entrepreneurship Monitor ’s 2012 Women’s Report, in fact, found 126 million women starting or running a business, which means more than a third of global firms now have women owners. That’s not depressing. That’s empowering.

Women also believe in their opportunities at work far more than the hype—or the reports on the dearth of willing mentors—would have you believe. A 2012 report from management consulting firm Accenture called “ The Next Generation of Working Women ” found that 65 percent of women feel equal in the workplace, and 66 percent see visible role models. Only a third of respondents reported viewing work-life balance as the most important career factor. At the same time, a  Pew study  found that, for the first time in history, more women than men put a high-paying career near the top of their list of values.

There’s also hard evidence that progress is trumping problems. Though in the U.S., the male hierarchy was established over the better part of two centuries, the progress of female leadership has happened over a matter of two decades. A  Forbes Insight Study  found that 24 percent of senior leadership positions are now filled by women, while the  Center for American Progress  projects that by 2030 women will hold 41 percent of senior posts. Currently, more highly visible female leaders are reaching the top, including Ursula Burns at Xerox, Indra Nooyi at Pepsi, Virginia Rometty at IBM, and, of course, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo. And while they’re still the minority—women represent just  4.2 percent  of the top positions at Fortune 500 companies—women are no longer the exceptions either in high level positions or in traditionally male-dominated fields.  FBI figures , for example, put the total number of women in law enforcement at around 12 percent, up from just  2 percent  30 years ago. We seldom see references today to the first-woman this, or the first-woman that. Meanwhile, studies show  a clear link  between company performance and female leadership.

It’s only natural to focus on problems and challenges in times of transition, and often times calling out what’s wrong with the system can be a powerful tool for enacting change. But it’s also important to see the forces reshaping the future already in play—because they do exist. When women begin to look to tomorrow through a lens of confidence and optimism, the view is at once inspiring, empowering, and motivating. As with most things, real change happens through the collective action of individuals, not the debate of observers.


Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on  Twitter  and  Facebook  and learn more about Peggy at